A Feature Review of
My Body Is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church
Reviewed by Erin Feldman
Anyone who lives with a disability or chronic illness likely resonates with Amy Kenny’s title for her book, especially if they grew up in the church. “My body is not a prayer request.” The statement acts as an anthem, a rallying cry. It is, to use Amy Kenny’s words, “the beginnings of a scream against injustice” (xii).
But the scream, a concept borrowed from the cicadas’ seventeen-year cycle, isn’t only about identifying injustice in the church—what the church should be. It simultaneously invites people to reimagine what the church could be. It reclaims and reasserts the dignity of the human body, because each person is made in the image of God. Every person and every person’s body, disabled or nondisabled, declares the truth and beauty of God.
Disabled people (which is Kenny’s preferred term) often go unheard, though. They stifle or hide their screams so that they cannot be dismissed by the majority, that is, nondisabled people (xii). They live in constant readiness for well-meaning “prayerful perpetrators” (3), too. Says Kenny, “No place is safe from prayerful perpetrators. It’s draining to endure, especially because the people who do this don’t intend to cause us harm. They just haven’t considered how the assumption that disability needs “fixing” is dehumanizing” (3–4).
Disabled people also regularly counter “disability doubters” and “slippery-slopers.” Kenny provides ample evidence of both, from her lived experience. The doubters range in expression from subtle (or not so subtle) microaggressions to outright denial: “You don’t look sick” (55). As for the slippery-slopers, the slopes are indeed slippery. Some people couch their refusals to create more accessible spaces as a matter of stewardship. Others, if they were to examine their underlying motives, might discover a fear of change. As Kenny aptly notes, “Inertia is easier to handle than inclusivity” (174).
Kenny counters prayerful perpetrators, disability doubters, and slippery-slopers with a powerful vision of what healing actually is,
“Jesus’s healing is not purely about a physical alteration but about reestablishing right relationship between humanity and God and, hopefully, between individuals and community. Healing allows people to flourish. … Healing is a sociocultural process. It focuses on restoring interpersonal, social, and spiritual dimensions. It’s lengthy and ongoing because it’s a process of becoming whole” (9).
Often, healing is mistaken for curing. But curing the body—the nondisabled and “normal” body—doesn’t necessarily produce healing. Kenny offers a couple of scriptural examples, including the man born blind. (She names the man “Zach” as a way of reclaiming his dignity as one of God’s image-bearers.) Zach, she argues, is “cured,” but he is not “healed.” Zach may receive physical sight, along with spiritual insight, but those two things exclude him from the community rather than restore him to it (12–13).
Kenny also examines Jacob and Mephibosheth. Both men are disabled, Jacob through wrestling with God, and Mephibosheth through a childhood fall. In Jacob’s moment of encountering God, he finally admits who he is and confesses his need for God. “Give me a name,” he begs the angel of God, and the angel does. Jacob leaves that wrestling match forever changed. His disability is not dishonorable; generations later, the people of God refuse to eat the lamb’s hip joint in honor of their forefather. And Mephibosheth’s disability, which Kenny points out is neither “glossed as sinful or in need of remedy”, is not cured. It is, however, healed through community. David invites Mephibosheth to the banqueting table, “offering a way to heal his isolation and ostracization” (179).
As Amy Kenny weaves together her lived experience with the lives of people who inhabit the Bible’s pages, she urges—sometimes stridently so, but she says at the outset that this book is a scream, not a whisper—the church to reconsider and remedy its assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors toward disabled people. Some of this occurs throughout the chapters; much of it happens in the reflection questions and “top ten” lists that follow each chapter. Through it all, Amy Kenny exhorts churches to live by the truths they proclaim. If every person is made in God’s image, the church should be the place where each person is welcomed. If Jesus says to invite the lame, poor, blind, and crippled to the banquet (Luke 14), then the church should spread the word and set the table in such a way that the lame, poor, blind, and crippled can attend.
But attendance isn’t enough. Disabled people should be celebrated and recognized for the unique ways they experience and reflect God to the world. Disability, suggests Kenny, may be a necessary corrective to a church that views “normal” as nondisabled, champions productivity over stillness, and prizes independence. Disabled people offer a “prophetic witness” to these narratives, says Kenny (5). Disabled people live by a different sense of time (161–165). They recognize how utterly dependent they are and rest in the knowledge that God is God, and they are not. Many disabled people, Amy Kenny among them, wouldn’t trade those realities for any “cure.” They come to rejoice in the beauty found through and in their disabilities, joining Paul in saying, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
And sometimes, that boasting comes in a whisper. Other times, it arrives with a screaming season. Those two movements, however different from one another, do not arise from the self. Rather, they arise from Christ’s power, which works within the church to make God’s people one. “By this,” Jesus says, “people will know you are my disciples: if you love another” (John 13:35, paraphrase). By making worship spaces more accessible, more people will come, because they will have witnessed the transforming and transformative love of God, expressed by His children, disabled and nondisabled, toward one another.
Erin Feldman is a content writer for The Austin Stone Institute, at The Austin Stone Community Church. Her recent projects include liturgies in Words for Spring and Foundations of Faith: Cultivating the Christian Life Through Study and Practice. Find her online at: www.writerightwords.com